Ken Ochiai’s nostalgic character study Uzumasa Limelight is a welcome Japanese entry in a minor but surprisingly varied category of movies about stunt performers, which includes the Burt Reynolds vehicle Hooper (1978), Richard Rush’s cult satire The Stuntman (1980), the Michelle Yeoh drama The Stunt Woman (1996) and Tarsem’s richly dazzling fantasy The Fall (2006). Here, the protagonist is an ageing “kirareyaku” actor (performers in samurai fare who are required to die in spectacular fashion) who finds the industry around him changing as he enters his professional twilight.
Set around Uzumasa Studios in Kyoto – the general area was once known as the “Hollywood of Japan” because of its large number of production facilities – Uzumasa Limelight focuses on Kamiyama (Seizo Fukumoto), a stuntman who has accumulated 50-years of experience, during which time he has gained much respect from his peers for his dedication to the craft. In tandem with the winding down of Kamiyama’s career, Ochiai shows that the genre in which he his protagonist has specialized is also well past its peak of popularity – fewer jidaigeki television series (dramas set in the Edo period of 1603-1868) are being produced as audience taste has shifted to contemporary dramas, such as police procedurals, so veteran stunt performers are instead assigned work in the neighboring theme park where their well-honed swordplay skills are used to entertain tourists in Edo Town stage shows.
What distinguishes Uzumasa Limelight from the myriad of films about ageing veterans accepting that it is time to bow out and finding a way to do so while maintaining their professional dignity is the deftness with which Ochiai integrates classic jidaigeki narrative elements. Resolutely low-key and even selfless in his behaviour, Kamiyama is established as the most admired performer in his company, a master performer who enjoys easy camaraderie with his ‘clan’ of lifelong colleagues. However, his status falters following an incident that finds him standing-up to an arrogant director, thereby resulting in his suspension from screen roles and relegation to the theme park circuit. Needing a new sense of purpose, he becomes a mentor to Satsuki (former tai chi champion Chihiro Yamamoto), a movie fan and aspiring actress who is seeking work as an extra at Uzumasa Studios. While the youthful stars of the jidaigeki television series in which she ends up appearing are superficial, fame-hungry performers, Satsuki is truly respectful of the industry’s history and the lessons she learns from Kamiyama enable her to win the lead role in a big screen production. By this time, Kamiyama has retired, but Satsuki is determined to use her newfound studio clout to share the spotlight with her teacher. Ochiai builds towards Kamiyama’s final screen appearances as if it is the final duel of a great warrior seeking to restore his honor after a period of humiliation.
Uzumasa Limelight is very much about the humdrum present state of the Japanese entertainment industry but also yearns for its glorious past – it’s cleanly shot with digital cameras and Ochiai’s staging of the cramped on-set battle scenes illustrates how such productions are far from the lavish spectacles of their heyday, but the rich color schemes point to a traditional spirit that is still evident despite the cost-cutting. The corporatization of Japanese film and television is here exemplified by the commercially-minded decision making process of studio executive Akihiko Kawashima (Masashi Goda) who has rapidly climbed the ladder through personal relationships rather than talent. Kawashima is chasing the youth market with little regard for enduring quality and aims to rejuvenate the jidaigeki genre with pop star casting choices and CGI-enhanced action sequences.
The film’s melancholic mood is anchored by Fukumoto, who is at once stoic and vulnerable. A highly regarded real-life “kirareyaku” actor, Fukumoto demonstrates his signature move (arching of the back, twisting and convulsing so that his face turns to the camera as his body falls to the ground) in Uzumasa Limelight with Ochiai celebrating his prowess in slow motion. However, Fukumoto is also a commanding presence when not wielding a sword – the look of resignation that flickers across his face overhearing production coordinator Kenichi Naganuma (Hirotaro Honda) discussing Kamiyama’s limited prospects is just one of many affecting moments of pained restraint.
Although events move at a leisurely pace so the audience can take in all the beautifully designed film-within-a-film details, Ochiai takes his storytelling cues from jidaigeki classics to ensure that his storytelling strokes are judiciously made and sentimentality is largely kept at bay throughout. As elegantly crafted as it is performed, Uzumasa Limelight is both a handsome tribute to Japan’s Golden Age of cinema and a timely reminder that, even in its current state of creative inertia, the best examples of its national output are still well worth seeking out.